PORTLAND, Maine — After unusually extensive discussion that drew comments from every councilor and testimony from the chief of police, the City Council Monday night approved replacing a notorious West End night-spot with a restaurant run by an man convicted of drunken driving.
The council voted 7-2 to approve an application by Peter J. Verrill Jr., 36, of Falmouth to serve liquor at a high-end restaurant he’s planning at 231 York St.
But because Verrill has been convicted of several crimes and faces charges following a New Year’s Eve arrest for allegedly operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol, his application was a controversial one.
“A [liquor] license is a privilege, not a right, and I don’t think Mr. Verrill has demonstrated the character to be granted one,” said Mayor Michael Brennan, who voted with Councilor Ed Suslovic to deny the license.
The approval of licenses is usually a routine matter for the council. In fact, just minutes before discussion of Verrill’s license, the council unanimously approved a restaurant application to reopen the recently shuttered Porthole Restaurant and Pub on the Custom House Wharf.
Verrill’s restaurant, Outlier’s Eatery, is now under construction on the site of the former Popeye’s Ice House, a tavern that closed in 2008 after being denied renewal of a liquor license. Popeye’s was notorious for bar brawls, a 2007 stabbing and a 2008 fire — as well as the promotional display of a small airplane tail sticking out of its roof.
Brennan noted that the appearance of Police Chief Michael Sauschuck before the council was an unusual sign.
“There’s never been a chief before us recommending denial,” he said. “The very fact that he’s here tonight says something.”
Verrill is part-owner of two other restaurants — Grace, on Chestnut Street, and Foreside Tavern, on U.S. Route 1 in Falmouth.
He’s also currently under license suspension for his New Year’s Eve arrest, and has been convicted of a string of other crimes dating to 2001. They include a previous OUI, criminal threatening with a dangerous weapon, leaving the scene of an accident, violating bail conditions and four cases of speeding, according to Sauschuck.
“In my eye, this history shows a lack of responsibility,” he said.
Verrill said that his previous arrests were related to personal difficulties and a “publicly bitter divorce.” He also said his current restaurant responsibilities are strictly managerial and do not involve alcohol — similar to the role he would play at Outlier’s.
“I’m just glad to have an opportunity to turn things around, and give something back,” he said, noting that he has already invested $1.5 million in the new restaurant. “I take a lot of shame and responsibility for what I’ve done.”
Councilors were sympathetic.
David Marshall, the District 2 councilor representing the West End area that includes the Outlier’s property, noted that despite Verrill’s “problematic” criminal history, his previous restaurant ventures haven’t harmed Portland neighborhoods.
“I think he deserves a chance,” Marshall said, noting that if problems develop at Outlier’s, he would be the first councilor objecting to a license renewal.
Councilors repeatedly called Verrill and Sauschuck to the podium in a cross-examination that lasted more than an hour. Even District 5 Councilor John Coyne, who rarely speaks at council meetings, questioned Verrill about his sincerity in seeking alcohol-abuse treatment.
“I want to know if you are just doing this to get through a program, or is it embedded in your personality?” he asked. “I take this very seriously.”
But by the end of the evening, most councilors gave Verrill the benefit of the doubt.
“I think I’m willing to rely on your assurances,” Councilor Jill Duson said.
As Verrill left City Hall, he said he was “thrilled and relieved” by the council’s decision, and that Outlier’s could be open within a matter of weeks, pending city health inspections.
He also said he’s looking forward to the prospect of bringing a new restaurant to an overlooked block of the West End, where a smaller restaurant may also be opening a few yards away.
“I’m abundantly happy that they’ll be next door,” Verrill said. “A little competition is a good thing.”